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After a Divisive Israeli Election, Calls for Unity

JERUSALEM — The near-final results of Israel’s intensely fought election gave rise on Wednesday to a seemingly contradictory conclusion: While the country remains deeply divided, the forces of unity have gained an edge.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who sought to drive wedges through the electorate along religious, ethnic and ideological lines, appeared to have come in a close second to the centrist former army chief Benny Gantz.

Mr. Gantz and another party leader, Mr. Netanyahu’s former deputy, Avigdor Liberman, who won a kingmaker’s role, have advocated a broad coalition that would govern from the center and sideline the more extreme elements of Israeli politics.

That would mean that after a Netanyahu government beholden to the hard right and the ultra-Orthodox, a less polarizing administration could take shape that heeds the desires and interests of a broad majority of Israelis, many of them more secular in outlook.

For Mr. Netanyahu, his future is uncertain: With a likely indictment on corruption charges looming in a matter of weeks, he will now face far greater difficulty in seeking immunity from prosecution under a Parliament that he may no longer lead.

The previous election, in April, ended with remarkably similar results. Then, Mr. Netanyahu came away with an advantage but failed to assemble a majority coalition with his right-wing, ultra-Orthodox allies, prompting Tuesday’s redo election.

This time, Mr. Gantz appears to have the upper hand, and while the makeup of the next government remains far from certain, it is already clear that he would take a different approach, calling for unity and consensus. It also seems clear that whatever the government, Arab citizens will enjoy greater representation, and perhaps even speak with a louder voice if an Arab lawmaker becomes opposition leader for the first time.

[Netanyahu is in trouble, and other takeaways from the Israeli election.]

Neither Mr. Netanyahu nor Mr. Gantz won enough votes to claim an outright majority in the Israeli Parliament. As of Wednesday night, estimates based on unofficial counts showed Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition with 56 seats, 5 short of the 61-seat majority, and Mr. Gantz’s center-left bloc with the same total, counting Arab support. Mr. Liberman was reported to have won 8 seats. Official results were still incomplete.

Israel now faces an uncertain period of brinkmanship and hardball negotiating in which the possible scenarios are too numerous to list and the outcome impossible to handicap.

“Right now there are about 428 possible scenarios,” quipped Abraham Diskin, a veteran political scientist.

Mr. Netanyahu still cannot be counted out. Mr. Gantz still lacks a surefire path to replace him.

But it appeared increasingly likely that the way forward would involve some form of unity government comprising both their parties, the right-wing Likud and the centrist Blue and White.

“People realize on some basic issues there is deep division in the country,” said Shlomo Avineri, a veteran political scientist at Hebrew University. “But there’s a feeling one has to overcome this kind of discourse. Everyone realizes there will be disagreements. But this result shows discomfort with the delegitimization of half of Israel.”

Mr. Netanyahu was still scrambling Wednesday to salvage his coalition.

He met late with his reliable allies from the hard right and ultra-Orthodox camps. They pledged to stick together in coalition negotiations.

In a sign of the trouble he is in, he canceled his planned appearance next week at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, citing “political developments.”

And at a party meeting Wednesday evening, he reportedly urged Likud ministers to maintain campaign-season discipline in case another vote becomes necessary. After failing to assemble a majority after the last election, in April, Mr. Netanyahu dissolved Parliament to prevent Mr. Gantz from getting the chance to form a coalition, triggering the election on Tuesday.

Just the idea that he would consider putting Israel through a third election provoked outcries.

For the first time in its history, Israel has now been on a campaign footing for nearly a year, which might be acceptable in Italy or Spain but is not in a country with enemies across most of its borders and the threat of war perennially around the corner, said Shimrit Meir, a columnist for Yediot Ahronot.

“I think it all comes down to responsibility,” she said. “Can you really drag the country to its third elections in a few months? It is scary, really.”

President Reuven Rivlin, who has the authority to choose which candidate has the opportunity to form a coalition, vowed to do all he could to avoid a third election.

The election was also a turning point for the country’s Arab minority, whose strong showing appears to have driven its representation in Parliament up to 12 seats, from 10, making the Arab vote a factor in depriving Mr. Netanyahu of a majority.

Mr. Netanyahu’s efforts to demonize and intimidate Arab voters seem to have backfired, while Mr. Gantz and other candidates who treated Arab citizens as citizens, deserving of respect and representation, have gained an ally. Mr. Gantz, unlike most major-party candidates in recent years, avidly courted Arab citizens’ support and promised to crack down on crime and build housing and hospitals in their communities.

Ayman Odeh, leader of the predominantly Arab Joint List, has said he would consider recommending to the president that Mr. Gantz be asked to form a government.

The last time Arab leaders recommended a prime minister was in 1992, on behalf of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who won another term. Mr. Netanyahu, then beginning his political career, used that fact to sow distrust of Mr. Rabin among right-wing Jews, said Yohanan Plesner, president of the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute.

“Ever since, there was a project, very much led by Mr. Netanyahu himself, to delegitimize Arab representatives as political partners,” he said. “That project was successful. But we’re now beginning to see a sort of change of direction on that front.”

The Arab Joint List is unlikely to be part of a governing coalition. In a Facebook post on Wednesday, Mr. Liberman said he would never sit in a government with the Arab parties, “not in this universe and not in a parallel universe.”

But the Arab parties could support a centrist government from the outside.

Mr. Gantz spoke by telephone with Ayman Odeh on Wednesday, and the two made plans to meet. Mr. Odeh said he hoped to become the first Arab to serve as opposition leader in Parliament.

The election also seemed all but certain to delay the long-promised Trump administration peace plan.

Before the election, Mr. Netanyahu had assured voters that such a plan was coming within days, arguing that only he, by virtue of his close relationship with President Trump, would be able to negotiate a deal with the Palestinians that would adequately protect Israel’s strategic interests.

But afterward, former American diplomats said that the election’s murky outcome meant that a peace plan had no chance of gaining traction in Jerusalem, let alone in Ramallah, where the Palestinians are sure to reject it.

“It’s out of the question,” said Daniel B. Shapiro, the United States ambassador to Israel under the Obama administration and now a national-security analyst in Tel Aviv. “Gantz can just say, ‘Thank you, Mr. President, I’ll get back to you; I look forward to consulting with our American friends, but this is not the time.’”

An administration official said Wednesday that the plan would be released “when the timing is right.”

Israel’s democratic institutions appeared to gain a reprieve in Tuesday’s voting.

Mr. Netanyahu allowed watchdog agencies to go without strong, independent leadership. The right-wing coalition he was expecting to return to government had promised to enact sharp changes to the balance of power, giving far more to lawmakers in Parliament while weakening the judiciary and other rule-of-law institutions, said Mr. Plesner of the Israel Democracy Institute.

“That package is now off the table,” he said. “Which makes me very happy.”

Finally, the battle over the role of religion that overshadowed the campaign appears to have been won by the secular side but has not gone away.

Mr. Liberman made state support of ultra-Orthodox Judaism a campaign issue when he refused to compromise with Mr. Netanyahu’s religious coalition partners in the last election, depriving Mr. Netanyahu of a majority.

Mr. Liberman insisted Wednesday that he would not join a right-wing government that depended on ultra-Orthodox support, as has Mr. Gantz.

A government without ultra-Orthodox religious parties, for the first time since 2015, could enact a civil marriage law or ease Sabbath restrictions on public transportation in less religious areas.

It could also herald an amelioration of the rift between Israel and the generally more liberal Jewish diaspora in the West, and particularly in North America. Mr. Netanyahu’s capitulation to his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners on matters like conversion and pluralism had brought the relationship almost to a breaking point.

Still, the path to unity is mined with discord and the makeup of the next government is far from certain.

Mr. Netanyahu may not have won Tuesday’s election, said Ayelet Frish, a strategic consultant who used to work for President Shimon Peres, but he has not yet lost it, either.

“Israel,” she said, “can end up in limbo.”

Source: NYT > World News

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